TALLAHASSEE — A special session on major new railroad projects in Central and South Florida continued to sputter Friday — the result of election-year politics, personality conflicts and overarching concerns about the legislation's cost and liability.
While the House debated the proposal and moved toward expected passage, the fragile Senate coalition grew shakier. Senate President Jeff Atwater spent Friday feverishly wooing back a key Republican senator who defected the day before, and used a procedural move to stack a key Senate committee in the rail proposal's favor.
At the same time, Republican Leader Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami led an effort to submit opinion columns to newspapers throughout the state in hopes of pressuring undecided senators before next week's pivotal vote and of garnering public support for the rail package.
"It's a little disheartening," Sen. Paula Dockery, the proposal's chief opponent, said of the maneuverings. "I haven't complained that all the committees have been stacked against me. But I'm just trying to get information out there, and I don't have this advantage the leadership has."
Dockery twice has successfully led the charge to kill the SunRail plan that is at the center of controversy in the rail legislation, saying it could cost taxpayers more than $1 billion to begin. The current proposal also seeks to boost funding for South Florida's Tri-Rail system by up to $15 million and to establish a new state agency to manage rail. The ultimate goal: attract $2.5 billion in federal stimulus money for a bullet train.
Atwater insists the rail proposal is vital to transforming the state's economy. His allies dismissed rumors Friday that he was threatening Republicans with their committee chairmanships if they vote against it.
"That is absolutely untrue," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a rail supporter. "President Atwater is not that kind of leader."
And that might be the problem.
Atwater took the risk of calling the special session without enough promised votes to get the rail deal passed. Now that some votes are wavering, he is trying more indirect tactics to ensure victory.
As word spread Friday that Democratic Sen. Larcenia Bullard was hospitalized following a heart attack and likely will miss the session, Atwater replaced her as vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee with Fasano. That panel will be the bill's first Senate stop Monday.
Choosing Fasano instead of another Democrat suggests Atwater is worried about the legislation being scuttled before it even reaches the Senate floor.
Atwater spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof insisted he chose Fasano, longtime chairman of the Senate transportation budget committee, "because of his knowledge of transportation issues." Atwater couldn't be reached.
"It's the president's call," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, who is slated to replace Atwater as Senate president in November 2010. "Clearly he's expressed his desire to see this pass, and I think he'd rather see it debated on the floor than die in committee."
Also Friday, Senate leaders worked to reverse the surprise defection of Republican Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who voted for SunRail the past two years in which it was defeated, but Thursday said "this is not the same bill."
Now he says he is warming back toward the "yes" side. Baker is running for agriculture commissioner against U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, a position that makes Baker vulnerable to all sorts of pressure regarding fundraising and endorsements.
Consider Fasano's statement Friday: "Certainly we'd like to have him back on board, and this project will help his community. And as a senator running for a statewide chair, I'm sure Sen. Baker understands the importance of supporting alternative modes of transportation. I'll just leave it at that."
Even House leaders were recruited Friday to help sway wavering Republicans. Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, reached out to Bradenton Rep. Bill Galvano and asked him to submit a pro-rail column to his hometown paper, the Bradenton Herald.
Galvano shares a district with Sen. Mike Bennett, who was among the Republicans to defeat SunRail the past two years. He frets about the $1 billion cost and taxpayer liability for private rail carrier CSX once the state buys its tracks.
But Friday, Bennett said he's no longer firmly opposed to the rail deal because taxpayers are no longer completely liable for accidents caused by CSX on the SunRail tracks.
"Those of us in quasi-leadership don't want to embarrass the Florida Senate," Bennett said. "I'm keeping an open mind."
Meanwhile, the House spent three hours Friday debating the bill, with both Republicans and Democrats pointedly questioning the claims of economic development, jobs and federal money for high-speed rail.
"What type of jobs are we looking at?" asked Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami. "Is it really jobs or is it just temporary?"
Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, questioned the merit of the House even debating a proposal that looks so wobbly in the Senate.
"This is a waste of time," Evers said. "I got 400 acres of cotton I need to be gathering."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.